Tempest 4000 is a great iteration on an arcade classic

9 months ago by Jack Yarwood

Veteran developer Jeff Minter is back, and with Atari no less.

The announcement of Tempest 4000 in August surprised everyone. Developer Llamasoft and the publisher Atari had been at war for years, ever since Atari threatened Jeff Minter, Llamasoft’s founder, with legal action over his Tempest clone, TxK. Now here they were working together again. I couldn’t believe it.

Tempest is one of the few arcade games that I’m actually decent at. If I ever see a cabinet out in the wild, I always find time for it. I also played Tempest 2000 and Tempest X3 endlessly as a kid. In short, I’m a huge fan of the series. So, when I heard Tempest 4000 was going to be shown off at Play Expo Manchester this past October, I made sure that I was going.  

The original Tempest (1981) Tempest (Atari, 1981)

The day of the event, October 14th, I sat down at Llamasoft’s booth ready to play. The familiar claw-shaped spaceship hurtled towards the starting position on the screen. The aim was the same after 30 years. My goal was to move along the outline of geometric shapes, destroying the enemies that travel along lanes towards me. Along the way, I can pick up power-ups, some old and some new. These give me abilities that increase my score, let me jump away from enemies, and clear the screen of any threats.

I started by circling the outline of the shape, firing into oblivion. My tried-and-true method. It seemed to be working.

The enemies in Tempest 4000 start off slow, but they gradually pick up speed. I beat the first level, then the next one, losing a few lives along the way. I was just starting to feel comfortable, when disaster hit. An enemy grabbed me and starts pulling me towards the abyss. I’m done for. Or so I thought.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied an AI Buddy – a power-up I must have collected in the panic. It sprang into life, destroying my captor and released me with only seconds to spare. My heart was pounding. I breathed a sigh a relief and went straight back to shooting.

Tempest 4000 isn’t that dramatically different from its predecessors, but it doesn’t really need to be. The premise is still just as frantic and fun as it was in the 1980s and 90s, only this time around it’s much louder, faster, and more pleasing to look at.

The visuals are crisper, benefitting from its 4K presentation. There are also new effects that shatter and burst across the screen every time you destroy an enemy. It’s hypnotic to watch.

The music is also spectacular. It remixes and reinterprets music from the previous entries in the series, but adds some new flourishes here and there in the form of fresh samples and beats. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the psychedelic visuals. Loud. Chaotic. And positively pulse-raising.

“It’s just a more polished and nicer game,” Minter said, when I pulled him aside for a chat at Play Expo. “There’s more power ups in there. Some of the enemies are different, more aggressive, and the graphics have been reworked just because the pure vector stuff from TxK didn’t work, so we needed some solid shapes. Also, a lot more post-processing effects have gone into it.”

I returned to the Tempest 4000 booth several more times during the expo, playing the game on PS4 and PC with a custom spinner controller. Each time I got further than the last. I wasn’t the only one hooked:  people crammed the booth over the course of the weekend event. A constant stream of Minter’s fans recounted personal stories about their experiences with his games. A few parents shuffled their children over to say hello. After I finished my most recent game, I couldn’t resist asking Minter another question about the circumstances behind its development. What actually happened with Atari? I expected him to dodge the question, but offered me a surprisingly candid answer.

“I think, basically, that it was just better to work together, than it was to work against each other,” he said, shrugging and looking away. “If we work together, then we both benefit. If we don’t work together, nobody benefits really. Because even if [Atari] decided to sue me into the ground, it’s not like Llamasoft is a rich company. They wouldn’t get much out of us.”

Atari has tried to relaunch some of its classic properties in the past, but these have mostly ended in failure. Asteroids: Outpost and Roller Coaster Tycoon World are two notable examples of this, both considered pale imitations of their predecessors. Tempest 4000 is different though. It’s actually left me feeling optimistic. It captures the spirit of the original games, while incorporating new touches to appeal to a contemporary audience. Most of this, I believe, is down to Llamasoft and Minter, who clearly understand the property and how to iterate upon it successfully.

Tempest 4000 currently has no fixed release date, but you can expect to hear more about it soon. For more updates, check out Llamasoft’s website or follow @Llamasoft_ox on Twitter.